I’m Going To Be Learning Chinese Forever!
In last year’s March edition of my newsletter I mentioned I would explain at a later date why I read subtitles in Spanish but not in Mandarin when watching TV shows in languages that I don’t speak. As Chinese New Year is upon us I thought it would be a good time to share. It is also the anniversary of when I first started learning Chinese, and this new year I will be celebrating 14 years. I will also be lamenting a little as I’m often reminded of how after all these years of speaking Chinese my reading still hasn’t progressed beyond kindergarten level. That is, if a kindergarten kid can read and send text messages. Anyway, at this rate I feel I’m going to be learning Chinese forever!
I moved to Beijing, China in 2007 with the main purpose of learning Mandarin, and I enrolled on a language program at Beijing Language and Cultural University (BLCU). It was an intensive program of four hours of class daily, five days per week. On top of that, our main teacher (we had three) gave us three hours of homework every day because she said that was how much she had when she was studying English. I had no knowledge of Mandarin when I arrived but I was confident that I could easily learn it. After all, I was brought up bilingual and I had successfully learnt Spanish a decade earlier when I lived in Madrid.
Within a matter of days there, I realized that seven hours of daily studying wasn’t going to be enough for me to acquire the language skills I needed to survive in Beijing. For a start, all the street signs were in Chinese characters as were the menus in restaurants. I ordered food by walking around the restaurants to see what fellow customers were eating and pointed to the dishes I liked the look of. I couldn’t ask the waiters what was in the food and they couldn’t tell me either as they spoke no English. It was hard to find locals that spoke English. It didn’t help that I had chosen to live in my own flat off campus, in a neighborhood where I was told foreigners didn’t live, which suited me as I wanted to minimize the amount of time I would spend speaking English. My university was located in Wudaokou, an area full of some of China’s best universities such as Peking and Tsinghua which attracted many foreign students to live in the neighborhood. If I lived there too I feared I would end up socialising with them and speaking English all the time, the lingua franca amongst foreign students. Moreover, I had gotten a part-time job teaching business English so it was important I maximize my exposure to speaking and thinking in Mandarin.
Initially, I had to take taxis to and back from university because I couldn’t figure out what buses to take––I was unable to read the signs at the bus stops and didn’t have the language skills to ask my neighbors either. Then, I had the “genius” idea to make a list of all the bus numbers at the bus stops near my flat and compare them to the ones by my university. Next, I took turns taking the buses that matched until I found the one with the best route. Taking taxis wasn’t smooth sailing either. Every time I attempted to tell the taxi driver my address, he/she would look at me like I had just spoken English and would reply “ting bu dong, 听不懂” (I don’t understand). Dejected, I would show the driver the page in my notebook where my landlord had written my address for me in Chinese characters.
This went on for about three weeks until one day I told myself that if the driver didn’t understand me saying my address I would have to walk all the way home. I had done the walk once before and it felt like an interminable maze filled with monolithic tall apartment and office buildings and a myriad of raucous vehicles. But the walk was only 75 minutes long, which I knew because I kept looking at my watch and wondering when and If I was ever going to get to my destination. And while it was just on one road, it was the broadest city road I had ever seen. Its width scared me and I didn’t dare cross it alone. I waited until a couple of locals arrived to guide me (unbeknown to them) to the other side of it. I guess I picked the right day as the exhaustion I was feeling and the groceries I was carrying motivated me to say my address well enough for the driver to understand me. I was elated and relieved! In my early weeks in Beijing, at times my attempt to speak Mandarin had comical results. One time, I went to a shop and thought I had asked for insect repellent but instead I ended up with sunscreen.
My class at BLCU had 20+ students (depending on how many showed up for the day) so the opportunity to actually speak Mandarin was limited. We spent most of our time listening to the teachers and reciting words. Many times I wanted to scream and run out of the class to relieve my boredom. And I was frustrated with not being able to speak with the locals. I longed to be able to converse with the waiters of the restaurant where I had my very first meal in Beijing and where I had lunch every day. They got a real kick out of teaching me names of dishes and hearing my not always successful pronunciation attempts. Thanks to them I built up my food vocabulary in no time. So much so that the odd times I went to restaurants with my classmates (I avoided hanging out with them to speak less English) I ended up ordering for us. I really wanted to ask the waiters the recipe for my newly found favorite vegetable dish, “yu xiang qie zi” (鱼香 茄子), eggplant drenched in garlic, scallions, ginger and oil”. A third of the way through the semester, I got myself a private tutor twice per week so I could practice speaking.
The semester ended, I passed all my exams and even got a special award for my perfect attendance. I wanted to continue studying Chinese, but not at the university where the style was too rigid and monotonous for me. My goal was still to attain a high level of speaking proficiency so I hired a private teacher, Zhao. To retain some of the discipline I had got at BLCU, I arranged to meet with my new teacher, Monday to Friday at 8am, the same time classes had started at BLCU, but we met for two hours instead of four. We also used textbooks produced by BLCU and met in a cafe near its campus. Zhao asked me what my objective was, I told her it was to improve my listening and speaking. She stressed to me that reading and writing was also important, not just to read road signs and menus while in China but also to help maintain my Chinese once I leave China. I replied that learning characters is boring, and I just want to concentrate on speaking for now. Over the years she taught me she often reminded me of this and I would simply reply I don’t have any desire.
To start with, studying with Zhao was much tougher than being at university. I was the only student in the class, there was no room for daydreaming. Zhao only knew some basic English words, which was perfect for me, I was tired of telling my previous tutors not to explain to me in English. How was I ever going to learn to think and understand in Chinese! With Zhao I had to really listen to her explanations and figure out how to express myself with my limited vocabulary. In the first week during class, I took a lot of loo breaks to get some respite. She was very patient and kind. The first weekend after we started she invited me to her home for a meal and she made me “yu xiang qie zi, 鱼香 茄子 (eggplant dish) and qing zheng yu 清蒸鱼 (steam fish), the two things I had told her I most liked eating at my restaurant. I was very touched.
Zhao taught me for 5 and half years. Gradually we went down to meeting twice per week, but only stopped because she got pregnant and went on maternity leave, and later she moved back to her hometown. I never got another tutor—Zhao was hard to top. She introduced me to all sorts—to many delicious foods Beijing had to offer, to her family (I often got invited to their gatherings), what to say to taxi drivers when they refused to take me somewhere (I loved their faces when I reminded them Beijing taxi policy)—but she never taught how to swear she said my mouth was sharp enough without it and she feared it would get me into serious trouble. Thanks to her teaching by the time I left China in 2015 my Chinese was good enough for me to have a two hour meeting with my accountants (who only knew a handful of English words) to discuss how to terminate my business affairs in China. This was after I arrived flustered and exhausted from cycling for almost an hour to their office on the 3rd ring road in rush hour traffic! If you know Beijing’s roads, you will know that this was no easy feat.
As much as Zhao was a good teacher she couldn’t get me to improve my Chinese characters knowledge beyond reading passages in my textbooks and sending and receiving text messages. I was fine with asking people in the supermarket to read food labels to me, and asking bank tellers or my accountants to write out bank slips and cheques for me. Nonetheless, three years after I left Beijing, I realized that Zhao was right that I should have worked more on reading and writing Chinese. I had kept in touch with her via phone calls and text messages––I could recognize enough characters to read her texts. However, I became increasingly aware that it was taking me longer and longer to come up with the correct Pinyin (romanization) to search for the Chinese characters, and the vocabulary I wanted to use in my texts. In late summer of 2018 Zhao shared a video with me that she wanted my opinion on. I commented via text. My text was so illegible–used wrong characters and words–that she replied by both voice message and text to explain and correct my mistakes. I was mortified. They were mistakes I believe someone who had spent as long as I had studying Chinese should not have made. It wasn’t because I hadn’t kept up with my Chinese, I felt I had. Since I left China I have been watching Chinese TV shows religiously thanks to apps like Tencent Video (腾讯视频), and I always take the opportunity to strike up a conversation with any native Mandarin speakers I meet. I asked myself how I was going to better protect the investment I had made in learning Chinese. I also questioned how I managed to keep up my Spanish to pretty much the level it was when I left Spain over two decades ago. I realized that the only thing I have done differently is that I read in Spanish extensively. I have made a habit of reading Spanish newspapers every day since I left Spain, and I read several Spanish-language novels a year.
I decided it was time for me to go back to learning Chinese again with Zhao, and this time round I’m going to learn the blasted Chinese characters! I dusted off my old textbooks from BLCU––good thing I had kept them all. I committed to reading at least a page of characters every day. I managed to stick to this for over 6 months but then I started traveling a lot across the Atlantic. The “weightiness” of my Mandarin textbooks was the excuse I needed to stop taking them with me and consequently to stop learning Chinese characters again. Nevertheless, I have continued to meet with Zhao over WeChat video calls regardless of what time zone I find myself in. Recently she said that my speaking and listening level is the same as when I left China, even if I occasionally struggle to find the right words from my vocabulary bank. I haven’t completely accepted defeat where my reading skill in Chinese is concerned. I tell myself it will be a sabbatical or retirement project. I have this image of me spending a year enrolled in a language school in some town in Sichuan province. I will focus on study reading and writing 汉字 Chinese characters. Outside of studying, I will occasionally hang out with pandas. Every day I’m there I will eat the most perfect and delicious Sichuan dishes such as “水煮鱼 shuizhuyu” (“fish boiled in water” but instead of using water they used oil!) and “烤鱼 kao yu” (“grilled fish”, the most understated name for a dish so complex in both taste and texture that I marvel at its creation every time I eat).